Fireworks could become legal in Georgia

Bill set for Senate floor vote Tuesday

mlee@macon.comMarch 4, 2013 

ATLANTA -- The great Georgia tradition of an annual drive to Alabama to load up on Independence Day fireworks may soon end if a state Senate move to legalize the explosives is successful in a Tuesday vote.

Taxes on the fireworks would raise an estimated $5 million annually to be split between firefighter training and trauma care.

“The reality is, if you look at some of the cities that border other states where fireworks are legal, we see people going into those other states and buying them,” said state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, the second signer on the legislation. “So they’re going to buy them.”

The measure is carried in a pair of Senate documents in tandem: Senate Bill 229 describes what would be legal and how it would be regulated. Senate Resolution 378 contains the proposed constitutional amendment that voters would be asked to approve on their November 2014 ballots. The resolution is scheduled for a Senate floor vote Tuesday.

If the statewide referendum passes, each Georgia city and county that wants to authorize sales of Roman candles, firecrackers and the like would then need to write local rules about where fireworks could be sold.

Staton said his interest in the bill is finding more money for the Georgia Trauma Care Network Commission, a body created by legislation he carried in 2007.

The trauma commission is meant to help hospitals statewide be ready to handle acute injury emergencies, via grants, advice and research. It also pays hospitals for providing uncompensated care.

Most of its budget comes from so-called super-speeder traffic tickets, to the tune of about $15 million annually.

Fully funding the commission would cost roughly $80 million or more annually.

But the $2.5 million is worth it if it adds even a bit more capacity to the trauma system, said Staton, explaining, “it’s not likely in the short term that we’re going to find big pots of money in the state budget.”

The Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Council certifies firefighters and is a favorite of bill sponsor state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, a one–time volunteer fire chief. Its state budget is about $635,000 for the year ending in June.

But some hospitals are skeptical.

“We question the wisdom of encouraging the sale of something that is known to cause burns, injuries and trauma, particularly in children,” said David Tatum, vice president for government affairs at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Mullis acknowledged that fireworks can be dangerous, but he said he’s talking about consumer, not commercial, fireworks.

“In the old days, an M-80 would blow a mailbox over your roof,” he said. “Well, the federal government doesn’t allow that anymore.”

John Walraven, a lobbyist for the Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital of Augusta, said the center’s “fundamental belief” is that Georgians wanting to shoot fireworks already go to neighboring states to buy them.

“If Georgia’s going to take a step toward regulating (fireworks), the trauma system sure could use the revenue ... and in all candor, the doctors say ‘We’re going to see them anyway, whether you legalize it or not,’” Walraven said.

The bill as written would legalize fireworks stores like those in South Carolina and Alabama.

Mullis’ latest draft, subject to change, would ban seasonal sparkler-selling tents that appear in shopping center parking lots ahead of every Fourth of July. It’s on the grounds that without sprinklers, they are not as safe as buildings, and it’s easier for such temporary operations to dodge taxes and licensing.

“Let’s regulate it and make it as safe as possible,” Mullis said.

If the Senate approves, the bill will move to the House, which has until the end of the annual legislative session in April to pass it.

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